Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
I suspect, like me, you will have heard this passage at Easter many times before. Most often with the focus on the remorseful words of the second criminal and his recognition of Jesus innocence, which in turn prompts Jesus to respond with the enigmatic, ‘today you will be with me in Paradise’. Many a sermon of deathbed conversions and repentant sinners will have been preached based on this short dialogue peculiar to Luke’s account of the Gospel.
However, something rather different occurred to me in this familiar encounter which had not struck me before. That the words of the second criminal are extremely unlikely.
Let’s remember the context. This is first century Jerusalem, held under brutal Roman rule. Crucifixion, was not just a means of execution, it was a public execution, a purposely agonising and humiliating execution reserved for enemies of the state, to serve as a warning to others of the fate which would befall them if they too challenged Roman authority. It was the punishment for treason, for terrorists, for revolutionaries.
So I find myself asking this question and invite you to do the same. Would a person who was being tortured and killed by those they regarded as an illegal occupying oppressor really believe that they were ‘getting what we deserve for our deeds’?
A delve into the ancient Greek and the key word in question ‘Axios’ or ‘fitting’ suggests within the context I describe that the more likely reading should be legal rather than moral. That is, we have received the appropriate sentence under Roman law for our crimes, rather than, we are getting what our actions clearly deserve.
The whole curious encounter thus for me becomes one of a contrast between violet and non-violent resistance, not a simplistic parallel between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘innocent’ or ‘guilty’.
However, I am still drawn to how this encounter is rendered in most of our English translations, and the concept of the guilty ‘getting what they deserve’. Does anyone deserve death for what they have done? Is violence of that state superior to violence by an individual? Can violence be used to end the cycle of violence?
These are not easy questions to answer, but are ones those of us who follow Jesus are required to grapple with as we interact with our world.
God who holds all of humanity
we pray for situations of violence in our world
and all the questions which are hard to answer.
We pray for people on ‘Death Row’, both the ‘guilty’ and the ‘innocent’, and ask is death what anyone deserves for their crimes?
We pray for those in war ravaged parts of the world, where bombs are dropped to bring an end to conflict, and ask, can violence ever truly bring peace?
We pray for all those who have tried hard ‘to do the right things’ and yet feel life has not rewarded them with what they deserve.
And we pray for ourselves, that we may not settle for easy answers to difficult questions, nor shy away from asking then, and asking them again, and again, till we are all at peace and with Christ in paradise.
The Rev’d Mike Walsh is a Pioneer Minister working in the cafe and bar culture of Chorlton, south Manchester, predominately amongst non church people in the 20s to 40s age range.